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August 13, 2012

Freshmen will be relied on heavily for Wildcats in 2012

The "Dirty Man" contest was a staple of fall camp for the Kentucky Wildcats for years.

Players would go weeks without shaving in August. To help pass brutal two-a-day practices and nights living in cramped dorm rooms before school started, the Wildcats would let their facial hair run amok.

Often at the center of it was defensive end Taylor Wyndham, whose never-ending facial hair would morph from full beard to Fu Manchu and back almost daily.

This year, there is no contest.

"I think we have a lot of guys on the team who can't even grow facial hair," Wyndham said.

He's more right than he knows. The Wildcats have only 16 seniors and redshirt seniors on the roster this year compared to 35 freshmen and redshirt freshmen. Kentucky will likely open the season with at least 11 freshman or sophomore starters, and another dozen freshmen could see significant playing time this season.

Head coach Joker Phillips said it's "definitely" the youngest team he's coached. He compared it to Kentucky's 2006 team, which included more than two dozen freshmen and sophomores in the two-deep. Wyndham, now a fifth-year senior, arrived in 2008, when many of those players were seasoned upperclassmen.

Wyndham and center Matt Smith, also a fifth-year senior, have seen things come full circle in their time in Lexington.

"Definitely the youngest team (I've been on)," Smith said. "It's the youngest team where we have guys that we're expecting them to perform and play for us."

Defensive coordinator Rick Minter jokes that a good portion of his unit is "green and eating Gerber." Offensive coordinator Randy Sanders says that most of his players will be able to dress themselves for games this season.

Counting on so many young players leads to some inevitable changes. Senior cornerback Martavius Neloms said the Wildcats haven't been able to go as fast in the first week of fall camp, slowing down installation to help acclimate freshmen who will play key roles this year.

That also leads to changes in responsibilities for seniors like Smith. Leadership is expected to come from the top, but many of the more experienced players also have to take on teaching duties.

"They're counting on me to do more than just play," Smith said.

With the help of those seniors, many of the freshmen are finding out just how heavily they'll be counted on. Even for those who don't start, many will be expected to provide depth. Freshmen have interjected themselves into competition at several positions.

It goes beyond freshmen contributing on special teams, though newcomer Landon Foster will likely open the season as starting punter. Freshmen are making their present felt in several position battles including quarterback, running back, offensive line, linebacker and defensive back.

"Some of the young guys in this group are moving out some of the juniors," Phillips said. "Not so much the seniors, but some of the juniors are getting pressed by some of these young guys. We could be a pretty young team."

Smith realized how young the team was when his younger brother began college this fall. He'd never been at the same level of school as his brother, who is five years younger than him.

A similar reality has dawned on many of the veterans for the Wildcats. But it didn't take long for them to realize that no matter how young the team is, they'll have to perform the same.

"No matter how young, people still have to go out there and produce," Neloms said. "A freshman can cover a senior. As long as you know what you're doing out there, I think you'll be fine."

Neloms and Smith have faith in the young players that will be counted on this fall. They said people shouldn't alter their expectations for this year based on how young the Wildcats will be.

There will be new players. But the goals remain the same.

"It will be a young football team, but a young, talented, fiery football team," Phillips said.


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